What is animal agriculture and how does it affect the environment?


Many of us have grown up consuming meat, dairy, and eggs. These foods play key roles in many popular dishes. Yet the cost of a cheese- or meat-stuffed empanada may be higher than many of us realize. Industrial animal agriculture has serious consequences for public health, animal welfare, and the environment that must be grappled with both on a large scale and by each of us individually as we visit the store and prepare our meals.

What is animal agriculture?


Animal agriculture is the husbandry of animals with the goal of producing food, fibers or other substances for human use. In addition to the direct raising of the animals themselves, the term can also encompass activities needed to support the animals such as transporting their feed or disposing of their waste.


Does agriculture include animals?


There are many animals that are raised for agricultural purposes. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations includes bees, camels, cattle, ducks, chickens, sheep, and a number of other species among those considered to be livestock. All of these animals are frequently raised to produce food, fiber, or both in support of human needs.


What is animal agriculture called?


Animal agriculture comes in a variety of forms and can be conducted at different scales. Those that have chickens in their yards to produce eggs are taking part in small-scale animal agriculture. Most animals being raised for agricultural purposes today, however, live their lives in a much more restricted and controlled environment alongside hundreds or thousands of others.


Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)


A concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, houses a large number of animals on a relatively small amount of land. This means that the animals are tightly packed together with little, if any, space to roam and explore. Instead of having the freedom to display their natural behaviors and find their own food, their feed is brought to them.


Factory farms


The term “factory farm” can be used interchangeably with “CAFO,” and the key feature of both is the large number of animals being housed in confined spaces.


Intensive animal agriculture


Intensive agriculture relies on high inputs of capital and resources like fertilizers to increase productivity. Another name for raising massive numbers of animals using relatively little land is intensive animal agriculture.


What is the purpose of animal agriculture?


Though the purpose of animal agriculture may seem to be the production of greater amounts of food for the masses, factory farming was specifically developed to increase the efficiency with which food could be produced. With one-third of food produced for human consumption being lost or wasted every single year, in practice this efficiency is more about profitability than meeting the needs of people or animals.


Factory-farmed chickens


With over 28,000 slaughtered every 15 seconds, chickens are the most heavily bred and slaughtered species on factory farms. Chickens are raised industrially for one of two main reasons: their flesh or their eggs. Because the birds raised for each purpose have been genetically manipulated through selective breeding to fulfill their purpose as efficiently as possible, male chicks hatched by laying hens are killed at just a few hours old through cruel methods such as being thrown alive into grinders. Birds being raised for their eggs frequently spend their lives locked in battery cages with several other birds and with less space to stand and move around than a standard size sheet of paper. The suffering endured during the short lives of birds being raised for meat often includes being unable to stand normally because their bones do not grow fast enough to support the weight of their bodies.


Factory-farmed cows


Cattle on factory farms are typically being raised for one of two reasons: their flesh or their milk. In 2018 over 300 million cattle were slaughtered for food around the world. During the first three months of 2021, 6.64 million cattle were slaughtered in Brazil alone, though this was the lowest level in 12 years. Experts have speculated that the reduction in the number of slaughtered cattle could be due to high prices for veal calves, leading many farmers to keep cows for breeding instead of sending them to slaughter. Dairy cows, which tend to be a different breed than those killed for meat, suffer greatly on farms. Cows are repeatedly impregnated and their young taken from them and often sold as beef calves, so that their milk can be bottled and shipped to stores instead of sustaining their young.


Factory-farmed pigs


The primary purpose of factory farming pigs is for their flesh. Despite the high intelligence of pigs, during pregnancy and lactation, females are frequently confined in small cages that don’t allow them to express natural behaviors, much less challenge them mentally.


What is wrong with animal agriculture?


Animal agriculture touches virtually every aspect of society. Raising animals intensively for food or other resources poses serious problems for public health and raises moral considerations that cannot simply be ignored.


Animal abuse


The life of an animal on a factory farm is one filled with pain and suffering. On top of the lackluster housing that is often cramped, dirty, and loud, animals are frequently outright abused. Piglets are commonly neutered without pain management or sedation, an action that would result in backlash if performed routinely on dogs or cats. Chickens are packed into tiny cages and starved. On top of the suffering that they endure, these animals are doomed to have their lives cut short when they are no longer profitable, have reached the age of slaughter, or are physically no longer able to support the levels of production being demanded of their bodies.


Antibiotics


Antibiotic resistance is a major public health issue that is being also accelerated by the heavy use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Animals being raised for food are often given antibiotics as a preventative measure, even when they are not sick. These antibiotics can sometimes be passed on to consumers or are expelled into the environment and are dispersed via the ground and surface waters. The World Health Organization and the United Nations General Assembly have both recognized the heavy contribution animal agriculture has made to antibiotic resistance.


Confinement


Animals being raised for agricultural purposes often suffer confinement for much of their lives. Chickens that produce eggs are kept in battery cages. Dairy cattle often spend months in small spaces or tied up. Mother pigs are often locked into gestation crates, unable to turn around or care for their young as they would if they had not been born into industrial agriculture.


How many animals die each year from animal agriculture?


Every year over 70 billion land animals fall victim to animal agriculture around the world. This staggering number includes chickens, goats, ducks, horses, and an array of other species that are used for food production. It does not include farmed fish or the wildlife that lose their lives due to deforestation or the other detrimental impacts of animal agriculture.


Animal agriculture and the environment


Animal agriculture and climate change


During almost every step taken in the production of animal products, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. In fact, food production is responsible for 26% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and meat, dairy, eggs and seafood production accounts for at least 53% of food emissions (a sum of direct livestock and fisheries emissions, plus emissions linked to animal feed production, and land use for livestock). These gases contribute heavily to global warming.


Animal agriculture and deforestation


The impact that animal agriculture is having on forests is perhaps most striking when it comes to the Amazon. Cattle ranching, which accounts for 80% of deforestation taking place in the Amazon, is the top cause of deforestation in almost every Amazon country. The deforestation that is taking place in the region increases the risk of fire and soil erosion.


Animal agriculture and water pollution


Animal agriculture is a leading cause of both water use and water pollution. The industry is responsible for 70% of all water use. The farms then proceed to dump massive quantities of organic matter, chemicals, drug residues, and other substances in locations where they can enter water systems, posing a serious risk to ecosystems and human health.


Is animal agriculture bad for human health?


Given the numerous environmental and health issues associated with animal agriculture and the overconsumption of animal products, raising animals on factory farms for agricultural purposes is certainly a source of concern when it comes to the continued well-being of humans.


Animal agriculture may cause pandemics


Up to 75% of pathogens that emerged in the last decade were zoonotic, meaning they originated in nonhuman animals before spreading to humans. Placing numerous animals into cramped and filthy barns or cages provides the perfect environment for disease to mutate and spread.


Animal agriculture facts

  • Aquaculture, or the farming of fish, is now twenty times larger than during the 1980s.

  • Plant-based agriculture grows five times more food by weight than animal agriculture, on 69% of the land.

  • There are an estimated 80.3 million cases of Salmonella that originate from food every year around the world. Meat and eggs are major sources of the bacteria responsible.

What can we do about animal agriculture?


There are a variety of actions you can take to help combat the use of animals for food. Perhaps one of the most impactful steps you can take is to adopt a plant-based diet that fully omits animal products. By doing this, you are removing your support from animal agriculture when you visit the grocery store. You can also help organizations that are seeking to end the abuse of animals in agriculture by donating, attending events, or supporting them virtually.


Conclusion


Animal agriculture is responsible for massive amounts of animal suffering in every corner of the globe. The practices and abuse not only directly impact the animals being used for production, but also destroy the habitats of wildlife through deforestation and water pollution. Common housing within industrialized farms can increase the risk of pandemics as well as fuelling other public health issues. Perhaps it’s time to consider switching to plant-based eating to protect our own health, the health and sustainability of our communities, and the welfare of animals.